Audition is such a dirty word sometimes. But every orchestral performer has to go through the experience at one point or other. The other day I was exchanging audition stories with a couple of colleagues over dinner. This kind of conversation almost always goes the same direction: 1)Auditions are not always the best way to find a performer 2) When an orchestra decides not to hire anyone after a day of auditioning it is never good for the orchestra 3) There is not really any other fair way of selecting a future colleague of an ensemble.

It’s a frustrating conversation that I’ve witnessed and participated in for years. But when I was exchanging audition stories with my friends, we came to the conclusion (partly in jest) that there may be a way to make over the process so that auditions would be less of a negative experience for all.

First of all it’s important to understand the usual method of auditioning any orchestral player:

  • A general advertisement is sent out to which a musician sends back a resume.
  • An invitation is sent to the musicians who have resumes that the audition committee feels might be the best candidates for their orchestra.
  • A list of repertoire is sent to the candidates. Repertoire on that list is usually diverse to give the committee the best hearing of technique, musicality, and how that candidate may blend with the ensemble. Part of the required repertoire is a solo or concerto.
  • At the audition the repertoire is heard in two-three rounds (many times behind a screen to protect identity), each narrowing down to a smaller amount of candidates.
  • The final round (where the music director usually joins the audition committee) is to determine who will be awarded a job in the ensemble.
  • A player is hired and maybe a runner-up is named. Sometimes there are no offers of jobs (a multitude of reasons for this occurrence), which makes everyone have to go back to step one.

While much of the conversation about slightly altering the audition template was in hypothesis and or jest, our conclusions were based on some downright obvious observations we’ve made over the years as professional orchestral musicians.

First of all, the above list would remain the much the same, however a few fun tweaks might create a more efficient and sincere way of picking a new colleague for any ensemble.

Tweaks

  • Instead of just the standard repertoire, include one or two standards that your orchestra plays regularly. An example might be the John William’s Harry Potter Suite, Sleigh Ride, 1812 Overture.  You may laugh but I’ve seen some musicians who cannot syncopate Sleigh Ride, musicians who discount John Williams since it’s “just pops music,” and musicians that completely blow it on 1812 Overture for no good reason.
  • Shorten the required repertoire list. It’s ridiculous (and unfortunately very common) to require large amounts of music for today’s orchestra’s auditions.  I’ve been invited to auditions that have more repertoire on the required list than the ensemble plays in 2 seasons. Nobody should have to give up living or working to prepare five-15 hours of music that can only be heard in the space of  two-three rounds.
  • Make it a requirement for the music director to listen to ALL rounds. As the highest paid musician in the orchestra, and the one that carries the biggest deciding factor in the auditions, it would help to eliminate the “non-hire” auditions where the audition committee sifts through hours of candidates for a final round only to have the music director decide that nobody will be awarded the job.  Also, perhaps in the first round the music director should get an equal vote to everyone else on the committee, helping create a balanced feeling in the preliminary rounds.
  • Drop the required solo except for principal player auditions. It never ceases to amaze me how orchestras require a flashy solo, which no doubt will impress any committee, but after hiring someone will claim the new hire plays like a soloist and can’t blend with a section. Shocking.
  • If there must be a requirement for a solo, let it be more to show a personality of the candidate. Everyone always gets super tense and defensive about the solo requirement in an orchestral audition; complaints range from, “It isn’t standard repertoire!” to “If I have to hear another Brahms or Sibelius concerto I think I’m going to throw up!” It is common knowledge to most people on the audition trail that they will probably get punished for playing something out of the ordinary. For violin auditions, it’s almost always the same expectations: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Mendelssohn are the “safer” choices.  I’d love nothing more than to walk into an audition and lay down the Fire and Blood violin concerto by Michael Daugherty or Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize winning violin concerto.

In reality, orchestral auditions will probably continue on the same path as they have the last few decades. But as orchestras are struggle in so many places, it’s ironic that so much effort goes into “the perfect audition.” In all seriousness, perhaps there needs to be an additional round: How will you support your family and lifestyle if our orchestra goes bankrupt in a year.

In the meantime, I’ll continue thinking about fun ways to re-invent the wheel. Maybe I’ll even write a list of new requirements for conductor auditions…

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival where in addition to performing in the violin section, Holly volunteers as an active chamber musician. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.
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11 thoughts on “Audition This!

  1. As a half layman, I enjoyed your article. Through my brother, I had some knowledge of the rigors of the audition process but you explained what an arduous proposition it is. For many, it also involves flying thousands of miles and is one of the most important moments for them in their lifetime. A tweaking of the process seems reasonable for all concerned.

  2. I totally agree with you.

    The one thing I think would really help the audition process would be to follow all other industries on the planet and hold an interview of finalists. Auditions only show a player’s playing abilities, but doesn’t show how well someone’s personality will work in the section. I’ve known several players who have won and then later lost jobs due to bad attitudes or mental instability. This is something that an interview would help solve.

  3. In my opinion the Music Director should not be in on the audition process at all. S/he is a transient figure in the operations of the orchestra, conducting at most 10-12 weeks per season, over a period of 5-10 years. The musicians, however, are there constantly, and an individual’s tenure can last for 3 or 4 decades. If the MD overrules the musicians on the audition committee, then the orchestra may be stuck with an incompatible player (however skilled the player may be) for many years after the conductor has moved on. Also, the orchestra musicians know far more than any conductor what sort of player is compatible with the ensemble’s sound, style, and personality. No group of musicians would hire someone who played at a less than acceptable level. Moreover, allowing them to find the right person for their ensemble ultimately benefits everyone, even the conductor.

    In those auditions where hundreds show up but someone is not hired, often it is because the MD is at odds with the musicians on the audition committee. Limiting the makeup of the committee to the musicians, who have their entire careers invested in the orchestra, could be a step in the right direction.

    I also like the idea of shorter repertoire lists, personal interviews and probationary periods, and not giving too much weight to solo concertos for section player auditions.

  4. In many orchestras, the early rounds of auditions are already a situation of a committee looking for any slip-up to weed out as many contestants as possible. Wouldn’t a shorter list and no solo make that even more the case?

    I think it would favor younger players, as it wouldn’t show experience. No one can completely prepare every section of a really long list, but should one of those sections be asked for, it will be clear who’s played the piece before and who hasn’t even heard of it.
    I think less on the list would only more randomize the outcome, and it would become even more of a contest of ‘who made the fewest trivial errors’ than it already is.

    As an improvement to the process, why couldn’t prelim rounds be done via Skype? Then the orchestra could bring in only those they are seriously interested in.

    • Scott, I’m doubting most committees, regardless of whether the list is long or short, are “looking for any slip-ups.” In theory, why wouldn’t that same committee be just as harsh with a long list?

      I don’t think any of this would favor a younger (inexperienced) player. On the contrary, including the auditioning orchestra’s standard pieces (in one of my orchestras it was the Harry Potter Suite), it would be more fair to all ages than the same predictable standard audition rep that conservatories seem to be priming their students.

      And another argument for the shorter list, most professionals who are currently playing in a job (aka experienced) really lack time to prep an lengthy audition while maintaining standards in their current orchestra. It’s usually the under-experienced student that has this kind of time.

      There is talk in the industry for the Skype audition, perhaps this will replace the DVD/tape round. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      • Holly, in answer to your question, I think such committees *would* be as harsh with a longer list. The difference lies with the candidates: with more excerpts to prepare, some will more clearly show inexperience and/or serious deficiencies. I’d feel much better eliminating someone based on that, than having to focus on something fairly inconsequential.

        Essentially it’s having more information available on which to base a decision. I also prefer to track candidates through the rounds for the same reason.

        I never said ‘most committees’ (though I wouldn’t doubt that.) I can only speak from my own experiences. Sitting on a committee is nothing short of tedious, and many people are just looking for a reason to whittle down the count, especially in the earlier rounds. (I’ve played in many orchestras and still prefer the long list. Much of the rep. is in my fingers anyway.)

        Nothing more than my opinion. Especially on that last point, I know a lot of people would disagree with me. Nice blog! However many responses you get, I’m sure they’ll all be from a very different point of view. On our committee, we can never agree what the best ground rules are either.

  5. OK, I think maybe I wasn’t entirely clear. I’ve been in the position in the past of having to eliminate based on such minor stuff. I did have to pick *someone*. Your point is right: there will always be ueber-picky people who will eliminate for the smallest thing. But, what I’m trying to say (and not very well!) is that there is another category of people on the jury that doesn’t want to do that, but is at times forced to. More good playing (for this group) will dilute a few minor details due to nerves.

  6. It’s probably true that the audition process won’t meaningfully change in the near future. But to your point, why should it when a lack of qualified applicants is not one of the many challenges this business faces? The job description must change before the audition does.

    From my perspective the conductor’s role and pops music being on the list are interlocking problems.

    First, I take some issue with your sentence: “[The conductor] is the highest paid musician in the orchestra, and carries the biggest deciding factor…” The conductor is not a musician in the orchestra. He or she is a boss. And one who most likely has never stood on the performer’s side of the screen. Because the first few rounds are somewhat an insider’s affair, the conductor can probably add very little at that point in the process.

    Conductors are empowered with a weighted vote because they’re entrusted with the artistic stewardship of the institution. Their outsider’s perspective is, at least in theory, valuable because they are scoring with a less instrumentally biased perspective.

    Now that I just gave conductors a somewhat backhanded reason for being in one round; I’ll turn around and say that they shouldn’t be there at all.

    I agree wholeheartedly that pops and education concert music should appear on the audition list. That would better reflect the day-to-day fundamentals of the job. But music directors, despite their autocratic sounding title, don’t manage the entirety of the music orchestras perform.

    If conductors don’t know why some little detail buried in a deceased master’s symphony is “why this piece is an excerpt,” they certainly won’t know why a pops piece is.

    I think the audition process merely underscores a larger tendency in the business to work hard on what we’re already good at. We’re good at hiring good musicians. Which is different from saying we give all good musicians a fair shake.

  7. Maybe musical auditions should be more like pro sports drafts. It could generate more public interest in the arts (and maybe better salaries!) Scouts could report to orchestras about who they might be interested in at various schools or “minor league” orchestras, and teams/orchestras chose the type of player that fits their personality and budget and advance them to the auditions or hire them for a couple weeks. This could also be handled by regional auditions. Fly a couple orchestra reps to join a regional committee, and leading auditionees could choose their favorite offer from several orchestras, or be flown out to smaller, shorter, more selective auditions at the orchestra’s expense. This way something like 2nd or 3rd place could be recognized by advancement in an audition, paid trial time subbing with a group, or even a position in an other orchestra than the one that got the “first round draft pick”. Different orchestras may actually have different first choices, and the candidates wouldn’t have to take multiple auditions at $1,000 or more a pop to find out where they fit. Committees could spend a couple thoughtful hours rather than several mind-numbing days narrowing down and evaluating candidates.

    In most fields, the highly qualified candidates have their way paid to a smaller-than-100 pool interview, which consists of more than a 5 minute crap shoot, culminating in a couple rounds of people performing in a way they’re never expected to do on the job in an orchestra (anonymously, alone, invisible, in a strange hall, sometimes before split committees in different acoustics, for fresh or exhausted committees, without direction as to what the committee or conductor wants, through a thick drape, sight-reading, not responding to or matching pitches, phrases or articulations with other players, not connecting with audiences in front of them, with no regard to getting along with the colleagues beside them, etc.). Everyone in the biz knows wonderful players with substandard gigs, and great auditioners that are lousy colleagues. There have to be better ways to choose orchestral musicians, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to find them.

  8. First off, another thought provoking post, from one of my favorite blogs. Thanks!

    As one who played professionally for 20 years (and have not for the past 15) I had very
    strong opinions at one point of the whole issue of auditioning. Time has softened me a bit on the topic, but certain thoughts remain. To wit:

    –It is something akin to a cattle auction. That is, if you hold an audition for an opening paying $15,000 a year, you should accept the notion that you will get a certain level of player. If you select no one, expecting a higher quality player, than one needs to look seriously at the salary offered. In other words, you had better find the best player that shows up that day. I was never upset at losing out to a better player, but I was truly bull when they selected no one. That, to me, smacked of real arrogance.

    –Once I got into an orchestra, I always felt that no one should graduate from music
    school without playing the following pieces: 1812 Overture; Nutcracker (complete); Peter and the Wolf, and the Young Person’s Guide. Few orchestras get through a season without playing these works with minimum rehearsal. There’s reason enough for them
    to be on an audition list. Orchestra’s reputations in the community live and die by how well these pieces are played.

    –I concur with the thoughts about concertos. If you are hiring soloists, (read Principal
    players) that’s one thing, but people who don’t blend with the other musicians on stage need to enter the Tchaikovsky, or some other place to launch their solo career. For the same reason, finals should always include playing with a member of the orchestra. I was always amazed how seldom this took place.

    –And one of my pipe dreams was to design a system that may still be in place in Germany, or is in place in professional baseball. That you rank orchestras like
    Single A, Double A, Triple A and Major league — and that ranking determines which
    orchestras are available straight out of school, etc. Sure, this would limit the “field” available to major orchestras, but the smaller orchestras would get a chance to
    have great players learn the true ropes. Every time I floated this idea it was
    dismissed immediately — after all Ted Williams played in the majors at 19. But it works for the most part in baseball. Couldn’t it address some of these issues in orchestras?

  9. I’m a musician in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, based in the south of England. The way we do it in the UK is to have auditions which may or may not result in people being given several trial periods of work with the orchestra. Trials are for one or two weeks at a time, giving the applicant and the section time to get to know each other and see if the relationship is going to be a good one.

    The down-side of this, is that appointments can take an absurdly long time. It’s not uncommon for a job with five or six people on trial to take up to two years to fill, due to the difficulty of finding appropriate repertoire weeks when the applicant is free. Annoyingly, even at the end of the process, we may not have found the right person for the job and we have to start all over again, but we will have at least refreshed the extra/deputy list.

    I can’t imagine trying to choose someone for a job based on one or two rounds of auditions, for one thing, there’s no way of knowing if someone is one either of the bowing police or one of the ones who never bother writing anything in at all!

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